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Post-Irma advice from man who helped restore New Orleans after Katrina

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore praised the actions of Gov. Rick Scott.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore praised the actions of Gov. Rick Scott.
Published Sep. 15, 2017

The cigar-chomping, salty-talking, retired Army three-star general who helped restore order to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has some advice for Florida as it deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

Russel Honore, who turned 70 on Thursday, praises Gov. Rick Scott for the way he has dealt with a storm that killed about two dozen, left millions without power and spurred the nation's largest-ever evacuation.

"He did the right thing," Honore said, including early calls for evacuations and summoning the Florida National Guard.

But Honore also said Florida needs to work on some areas — its power and communications infrastructure, targeted evacuations, grants issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, helping people get out of the way of storms easier and requiring more emergency power generation.

The price tag, he said, is irrelevant.

"Look at the amount of money spent in overseas wars," Honore said. "We need to take care of our own people."

After Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, Honore was chosen to head up Joint Task Force Katrina, leading military efforts to restore order in a chaotic atmosphere. It was a natural choice, given that he was born in Louisiana and had already been involved in supporting military responses to eight previous hurricanes.

Back then, he found a region wholly unprepared and poorly organized to deal with the unfolding disaster.

That wasn't the case in Florida with Hurricane Irma, he said.

Political leaders from Scott on down were clear in their message that Floridians should evacuate. And unlike in Texas, where the National Guard wasn't in place until after Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston and other areas, there was a robust military presence in place in Florida ahead of Irma to help with evacuation efforts, and later, search and rescue, infrastructure repair and relief distribution points.

Leaders opened shelters early too, Honore noted — but there weren't enough of them.

"I think they have done well," Honore said. "But I'm not into patting people on the back when we've got people out there suffering, people who died and people without power, without gas and without water."

As of Thursday, there were 2.6 million customers without power in the state. Eight residents of a Hollywood nursing home died in sweltering conditions after the air conditioning system went out. And motorists had trouble finding gas, often because stations had no power.

Honore said these are arguments for greater investment in the power infrastructure.

Among his suggestions are more underground power lines and mounting all above-ground lines on steel poles.

He's also calling for more emergency power generation systems for nursing homes and other places housing vulnerable populations, as well as at pharmacies and at all gas stations — not just those along hurricane evacuation routes.

"You need food, water and medicine, you need power and you need fuel to survive," he said.

And Honore, who became something of an environmental warrior after hanging up his Army uniform in 2008, is calling for tighter restrictions on building near the water.

Among other suggestions: Any rebuilding in the wake of Irma flooding should require construction at least a foot higher than the level of recent flood waters.

Overall, Honore likened a hurricane to a football game.

"In the first quarter, the disaster wins," he said. "If everything worked and no one got killed, it wouldn't be a disaster."

The final score, he said, rests on what happens next.

"We win based on our response," he said. "Getting those things that sustain life back up and running."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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